Plans Unveiled For Office Tower On Constitution Plaza
KENNETH R. GOSSELIN
December 03, 2008
In the thick of a recession, the new owner of the former WFSB studios on Constitution Plaza in Hartford is moving ahead quickly with plans for a 12-story, $40 million office tower on the site — potentially the first significant office construction downtown in more than 20 years.
Demolition of Broadcast House, which opened in 1961 and is known for its scalloped roof, could begin as early as February.
Owner Abul A. Islam and city officials will present the plans publicly today at the site of the closed building, which WFSB vacated last year in favor of a newly built Rocky Hill location.
Islam, who owns a Middletown engineering firm, bought the property in July. He still needs to obtain most of the financing for the project, but will have invested $2 million of his own money in purchasing and tearing down the building, he said Monday.
His firm, AI Engineering Inc., with 90 employees, would move to Hartford and occupy two floors. Islam's hope is that other tenants would be attracted by a building so technologically advanced that it also brings in students and civic groups who would learn how it operates.
The building, to be called the AI Technology Center, would have a 250-seat auditorium and a small amount of street-level space for shops and a restaurant.
For the city, the project represents progress at a crucial gateway location near the Founders Bridge and the Connecticut Science Center, which is set to open this spring.
Islam, of Glastonbury, is developing the site at a time when office vacancies in the city are rising, although not at alarming rates. Downtown Hartford is facing other setbacks due to the recession.
Still, Islam said he is so confident of lining up loans or other investments — even though credit markets have tightened markedly in the nation's financial crisis — that he began removing asbestos from inside Broadcast House this week.
Although the recession is making companies cautious about expanding, and banks skittish about lending, Islam said the slowdown is likely to work in his favor during construction. Contractors are likely to be competitive in submitting bids because there is less work.
"The cost could be lower than $40 million," Islam said.
A native of New York, Islam got his first engineering job in Hartford in the late 1980s. He later started his own firm in the basement of his Cromwell condominium.
In 1999, after moving into successively larger rented spaces and adding staff, he decided to build a $1.2 million headquarters in Middletown. A year ago, needing to expand again, Islam looked toward Hartford.
Islam's company, which specializes in road, bridge and building design, would be the new tower's first tenant, leasing 30,000 square feet of the 200,000 square feet envisioned for the building. That could give Islam a leg up with lenders.
Islam hopes the top-to-bottom green technology used to operate the building, including, for example, a water recovery system, will be a draw because it will be unlike any other building downtown. He said the building will attract new tenants to the area — engineering, technology and research firms — that might not otherwise have considered Hartford.
"Once they learn about it, it's a building where people will want to be," Islam said.
If the project moves forward as planned, construction could begin in late summer and be ready for tenants in early fall of 2010. Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez said redeveloping Broadcast House would give a marketing boost for the property next door, the long vacant and decaying Clarion Hotel.
"This is a big, big step for that area," said Perez, who added that the city is considering Islam's request for tax breaks.
In Islam, Perez said, "We have an entrepreneur with a little bit of vision and a lot of drive."
The city has put together a redevelopment plan that could lead to the takeover of the Clarion by eminent domain if the owner — The Maharishi School of Vedic Sciences — won't sell willingly. In the past, developers have come close, but have been unsuccessful in efforts to buy the old hotel.
Daniel L. Whittemore, associate vice president at Islam's firm and project manager of the new center, said the company isn't interested in redeveloping the hotel.
"The hotel is a much larger challenge," Whittemore said. "It's harder to demolish and it straddles the street."
Broadcast House isn't physically connected to the plaza, Whittemore said.
Although office vacancies in Hartford are expected to rise in the next year, local brokers don't see a slowdown as deep as either of the last two recessions.
Islam said he knows he will have to charge about $26 a square foot, not including utilities and other expenses. That's above the current high-end lease price for the best office space downtown.
Islam's vision calls for the highest green building rating, a model of energy conservation. He also hopes to spark an interest in engineering among students at city schools, encouraging them to pursue jobs in the Hartford area.
Islam said it would have been easier to expand in the suburbs, where parking is most often free and taxes are often lower. But Islam, who believes in pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly city planning, said the good times of suburban sprawl are just about over.
"It's not going to work for the next 50 years," Islam said. "We decided we needed to go back to Hartford."
The building is designed with 120 parking spaces below ground, well short of the 400 needed if everyone in the building drove to work.
Though the building would have an agreement to share parking with the rest of the plaza, Islam said the design would make it easier for workers to arrive by other means of transportation. A bicycle parking area, for example, would be located near lockers and showers.
"You can take a shower and ride the elevator up," Islam said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at